A Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

The invention of the idea of a theory—a systematic set of logically related propositions that attempt to explain the phenomena of some domain—was perhaps the greatest single achievement of Greek civilization.

– John Searle

Ryan Holiday recently published a piece about Why You Should Study Philosophy. It’s a good read, and Holiday makes a number of insightful points about the value of inviting big ideas into one’s life. Philosophers through the ages have had a lot to say about the widest possible range of topics, spanning from the broadest generalities to the oddest particularities. They’ve mused on how to live a good life and the sorts of endeavors that are worth pursuing; they’ve argued about how to discern right from wrong and what it means to be a moral person; and they’ve postulated innumerable theories about the nature of reality and the origins of human consciousness. And these don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the painstakingly researched esoteric minutia the philosophers of today dedicate their lives to litigating, one peer-reviewed journal submission at a time. Truly, there exists no lack of rigorously interrogated philosophical scholarship regarding just about any specific domain of inquiry today.

Studying philosophy has long been more than a pastime of mine, to the extent that I’ve devoted years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to doing so in the form of pursuing a Philosophy degree. And one realization I’ve come to as a student of the discipline is that studying philosophy is quite different from doing philosophy. Just as reading a chemistry textbook is quite different from spending time in a laboratory, studying the latest anthology of contemporary problems in philosophy of mind is quite different from spending time methodically formulating one’s own beliefs into a rational and coherent framework by following a predetermined recipe for rational thinking.

But in spite of the preponderance of philosophical literature available today, these are troubling times for knowledge creation and the recognition of true facts, with practices of thoughtless information consumption and pseudointellectualism running wild. Even trusted news sources walk the line on a regular basis between sensationalism and blatant disinformation. The Washington Post, for instance, recently ran the following headline: ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. Despite the Lovecraftian mental images this headline may invoke, the “horns” referenced in the article turn out to be what are more accurately (but less sensationally) known as bone spurs: a phenomenon commonly linked to poor posture. Further, a day after its publication, WaPo prepended the following update to the article:

Update 6/25: After publication of this story, concerns were raised about an undisclosed business venture of one of the researchers, who works as a chiropractor. This story has been updated to reflect questions about a possible conflict of interest involving his business. The journal that published the main study in question said it was investigating the concerns. The researchers say they are making minor changes to their paper, but stand by their work.

This is only the most recent case of flagrant sensationalism and click-bait reporting to come across my newsfeed, but more extreme and potentially harmful stories have abounded for years. During the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the US, we saw false reports of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton spread like wildfire across social media. We also saw verified reports of Macedonian troll farms employing disinformation artists working full time to corrupt the flow of factual information from reputable sources to the screens and eyeballs of would-be voters.

I posted last year about the telos of fake news, and danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society has taken note as well. According to DataSociety.net, the organization is a nonprofit “research institute that advances public understanding of the social implications of data-centric technologies and automation.” In April 2019, boyd gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference in which she enumerated the vulnerabilities of social media and the news media. She discussed concerns over “data voids” and both sides-ism, and she presented a clear case regarding the dangers of epistemological fragmentation that emerge when knowledge (or its absence) is weaponized. All this is to say that the trouble is twofold: while trust in the information economy has gradually eroded on the one hand, our ability as individuals to sift through and make sense of the onslaught of dis/information has simultaneously become an increasingly difficult and rarely-exercised skill.

In light of this rather bleak state of affairs, I propose the adoption of the following model: a Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry. It is my belief that if we arm ourselves with a more robust framework for discussing, debating, deciphering, and deconstructing today’s never ending waterfall of digitally distributed information, we might have a better shot at coming to a higher number of valid conclusions about the world. Indeed, this is the very purpose of philosophy in its most pragmatic sense: to make our ideas clear, not to muddy the waters.

Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

  1. Define the domain
  2. Explore the domain
  3. Initialize the argument
  4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style

1. Define the domain: What are we talking about?

This is your first opportunity to state what it is you’ll be talking, writing, or arguing about. More generally and in short, simply (but precisely) state the topic. In addition, be sure to inform your reader or audience of what will not be part of the discussion. This is called restricting the scope. Another important step in defining the domain is “bracketing,” which is a term used in philosophy to set aside special cases. These special cases are technically part of the domain of inquiry, but due to a number of factors specific to each case, they don’t fit neatly within the path of discourse that will be followed as the inquiry progresses.

As an example, we may want to set the stage for a philosophical inquiry concerning the nature of consciousness. We may state, while defining the domain, that we will be concerned with differing states of consciousness such as sleeping and waking states, but that this particular inquiry will not be concerned with what are known as “out-of-body experiences.” Thus, the domain of our philosophical inquiry is defined as one concerning the nature of consciousness as restricted to sleeping and waking states, but bracketing (or setting aside) out-of-body experiences for consideration at another time.

The goal of defining the domain and restricting its scope is simply to narrow down the range of possible inquiries from an infinite set of topics or questions to a single clearly defined area of interest. The goal of bracketing is to make further progress by clarifying which possible points of contention within that area of interest are up for grabs, versus which ones we will reserve our judgment for at another time. There are a number of good reasons to bracket special cases within any given domain, including that they fall outside one’s expertise or individual knowledge, or because they’re problems that are too easily solved and consensus is already assumed, or even because they are simply too boring to discuss at this time.

In the example given here, out-of-body experiences are bracketed because although understanding their intricacies might be useful for understanding the nature of consciousness as a whole, these experiences are brought about by a number of various factors (e.g. meditation, intoxication, near-death experiences, etc.) which are necessary to be discussed in detail individually and in their own context. Out-of-body experiences are certainly within the domain as defined, but to include them in the broader discussion would only serve to slow down or hijack the inquiry as a whole.

2. Exploring the domain: What have others said?

Exploring the domain can be half the fun of the entire philosophical inquiry. In the previous step of the inquiry we defined the domain to say what it is we’ll be talking about. In this step, what we present our readers or audience with are the ideas and arguments of others working within this domain. A thorough explanation includes defining technical terms often encountered within the domain, as well as explanations of common themes or theories espoused by those working within the domain.

Taking again the example domain of the nature of consciousness, here we might explore the mind-body problem, or we might explain what philosophers of mind refer to as the hard problem of consciousness. It might also be useful in this exploration to define terms such as intentionality or qualia. These are terms and ideas that our argument might intersect with or rely upon at various points within the broader inquiry, but unless we establish a foundational understanding of them first, our argument will be less coherent to our reader or audience, and the philosophical inquiry as a whole will be less fruitful.

Exploring the domain is also an opportunity to discuss specific works by other thinkers within the domain as a way of providing necessary context for the remainder of inquiry. In cases where we plan to argue in opposition to a particular theory or thinker, this is the appropriate place to introduce the argument we intend to oppose. For example, we might provide a description of Daniel Dennett’s view of Physicalism or his definition of “wetware,” or we may choose to present an overview of his characterization of the mind-body problem by paraphrasing his use of the well-known brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.

In any case, thoroughly exploring the domain also serves to establish one’s own credibility on the topic, and to illustrate one’s standing as a reputable (or at the very least informed) individual, whose opinions, beliefs, research, and conclusions ought to be taken seriously.

3. Initialize the argument: Where will I dive in?

Initialization is a term I’ve taken from computer programming. In the sequential process of running a program, initialization is the assignment of all variables to their original state. It is an essential step to running the program because it determines the resulting features or outcomes that follow as the program runs. If you imagine the domain as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, initializing an argument takes place the moment you step onto the diving board. It is the moment of truth before diving in, where everything is laid bare prior to fully progressing one’s own argument or viewpoint.

To initialize an argument, begin by acknowledging any presumptions you’ve made in order to support the argument you intend to progress. Some presumptions are easily conceded and generally agreed to be true, while others might merit entire philosophical inquiries of their own in order to establish their validity. The key here is to remember that presumptions underly an argument, but they aren’t necessarily part of the argument itself. For example, you might present a white paper from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of your argument that wide-scale anthropogenic climate change is occurring due to the increased presence of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Your presumption here is that the IPCC is a reliable source of climate data, and I would agree. This is a clear example of one type of presumption we make hundreds of times a day, often without a second thought: the presumption of a source’s reliability.

Next, you’ll want to explicitly state any attitudinal stances or biases you bring with you as an agent with a subjective point of view. Let’s deconstruct the term attitudinal stance, which is common in philosophy. Simply put, it is a sort of theoretical attitude, belief set, or state of mind about a specific topic that informs one’s opinion about a topic and in turn affects one’s interpretation or judgement of that topic. For example, you might have an attitudinal stance about Biblical reasoning, namely that it isn’t a valid basis upon which to form rational conclusions. Or, you might have an attitudinal stance about art, namely that it is a uniquely human endeavor that occurs at the intersection of creativity and spontaneity.

Acknowledging the former stance as part of initialization would have a drastic effect on the trajectory of an argument addressing the origins of our species. Likewise, stating an adherence to the latter stance would affect the trajectory of an argument addressing the moral status of non-humans, which by virtue of one’s stated attitude automatically precludes animals from being capable of producing art.

Finally, it’s always good form to acknowledge one’s own blindspots and potential conflicts of interest before progressing an argument. For example, if you intend to discuss the nature of consciousness, you would do well to distinguish yourself as a philosopher rather than a neuroscientist or psychologist. Each field boasts a number of strengths not shared by its counterparts, as well as a number of shortfalls. Additionally, when discussing the current opioid epidemic in America, it would be relevant to know if your viewpoint is informed by your experience as a member of the governing board of a pharmaceutical company versus your experience as a parent of a child whose life was lost as a result of addiction.

4. Engage via proper inquiry and argumentation with style: What do I have to contribute?

The fourth and final step of the Standard Method is where much of what everyday people associate with philosophy takes place. It is here that you finally present your own argument and engage directly with the ideas of others previously explored in the inquiry. In order to meaningfully engage with the domain of inquiry, we must take time to challenge any shaky propositions presented by other thinkers, clarify the meanings of words or concepts that have previously been accepted with little examination, and identify any logical fallacies that have been overlooked prior to our own inquiry into the domain. This is what is meant by proper inquiry.

There are many ways to formulate a skillfully crafted argument, but the minimum standard against which all philosophical arguments are judged is validity. An argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for the conclusion to be false while its premises are all true. In other words, if the premises of your argument are all simultaneously true, the conclusion must necessarily follow. In the context of philosophy, testing for validity sets the bar much higher than a simple “that makes sense.” This is what is meant by proper argumentation.

However, proper inquiry combined with proper argumentation is still not enough. As a final cherry on top, we must inquire and argue with style. We accomplish this through strict adherence to discourse ethics of high standards. This means that we elevate the discourse through deference for others working within the domain, and by honoring intellectual diversity as long as it’s authentically and respectfully expressed. We ask follow-up questions in good faith, and we offer a charitable reading of opposing viewpoints. We utilize humor tactically, deploy irony where appropriate, and we acknowledge our own human foibles as a way of constructing a bullet-proof ethos that even Ayn Rand would envy.

The Evolution of My Yoga Practice

NamasteTo Practice is to Evolve

When I started on this path four years ago, I thought of Yoga much like going to the gym or casually playing a sport. It was a great workout that helped me burn calories and improve my overall health while also increasing my confidence as I became more comfortable in my own skin. But as I’ve learned more about Yoga and come to know that the physical postures are only one part of a more comprehensive way of living, I developed a practice with the goal of fully integrating what are known as the 8 Limbs of Yoga.

I’m still not an expert, and I learn more each day. As my understanding and engagement with Yoga progresses, it’s easier to open up and share my practice with the world without fear of judgment or correction. I believe the deep truths of Yoga are free to all honest seekers and practitioners, whether they be recognized teachers, or life-long students. No one has a monopoly on these truths. My knowledge of Yoga isn’t complete (it never will be), and I invite those who have come to a different understanding to share their experiences with me in a spirit consistent with the first two yogic limbs of Yama and Niyama.

Beginning with Bikram

I practiced the 26 postures (Asana) and 2 breathing exercises (Pranayama) of Bikram Yoga for three years before I started to see this iconic system as a true gateway into the integration of the other yogic principles. As I incorporated self-study into my Sadhana, or personal spiritual practice, I realized that for years I was merely going through the motions of the 26×2, oblivious to the transformation that was taking place internally.

After delving into the teachings of other yogis, both Indian and American, I began a home practice outside of the studio that included elements of Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow. As my world was opened to dozens more postures and sequences, I developed an appreciation for the contrasting elements of serene stillness found in the Bikram series and the flowing grace that’s emblematic of the Mysore styles.

Duality, not Dichotomy

I’ve found that stillness opens the door for concentration and meditation through focused observation of the body. The focus starts from within, is projected forward, and is magnified by the cosmic mirror as it’s reflected back and absorbed once more by the body. The focused eye-gaze is known in Yoga by the Sanskrit word drishti.

During periods of flow, when the eyes are continually redirected and the head is repositioned, it can be difficult to focus in the same manner. Instead, these periods of movement can be used to hone mental acuity and awareness. The focus again starts within, but rather than being projected outward, it should be channeled inward, by directing it further through the recess of one’s mind.

Even as a self-identified atheist and secular person, I’ve found the inevitable result of combining stillness with flow to be the complete alignment of the body, mind, and spirit. When it’s experienced, there’s no contradiction: only a clarity of understanding that gives rise to a quiet peace and radiant joy. To me, that’s the beauty of Yoga.

Multiple Intelligences: Biological and Artificial

The original draft of this post was written on May 26, 2013 as part of my unpublished (and as of yet unfinished) work, The New Era of Tech: How Emergent Virtual Constructs are Reshaping the World. As our civilization finds itself today on the precipice of fully embracing a world of algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and neural engines, I find now to be a more appropriate time to publicly share this and other works I’ve previously held as works in progress. I ask that the casual reader forgive the formality with which I’ve chosen to write, as this is the voice and ethos of my training in the discipline of Philosophy.

These articles, and my thesis more broadly, are primarily grounded in the dialectic principles of Hegel, as observed through a specific understanding of historical progression. It’s my hope that as I continue to write and publish, it will become evident how virtual constructs in their many forms pull us ever closer to the inevitable moment of Singularity, perhaps best articulated by Ray Kurzweil, and to illustrate the myriad other ways in which EVCs have fundamentally changed our world for good.

It’s difficult to identify one achievement alone for which Kurzweil is best known, but his work expounding upon the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR) shines bright among many. Although Kurzweil may be credited with progressing one of the most formal and well-known articulations of the LOAR in his book The Singularity is Near, he’s not the first to make note of the increasing pace and significance of technological development that underlie the law itself. As he acknowledges in his 2012 book How to Create a Mind:

“A year after his [John von Neumann’s] death in 1957, fellow mathematician Stan Ulam quoted him as having said in the early 1950s that ‘the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ This is the first known use of the word singularity in the context of human technological history” (194).

Understanding our Biology in Context with Technology

How to Create a MindOn April 2, 2013, just 5 months after Kurzweil published How to Create a Mind, President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative: a government-funded project aimed at mapping the brain. The BRAIN initiative is precisely the sort of project Kurzweil argues is needed so as to further unlock the mysteries of the human brain, and more specifically the biological neocortex.

Using the neocortex as a basis first for understanding human intelligence and creativity, then as a model for replicating that intelligence primarily through the utilization of cloud-based computational processing power, Kurzweil believes we will soon augment human biology to such an extent as to achieve transcendent capabilities.

Evidence presented by early mathematicians and computer scientists (von Neumann, Moore, Turing, et al.) support the theory that the human brain processes information in ways similar to primitive computation machines, but as technology has advanced it has become clear that there are several key differences between biological human intelligence and technological computational power. For example, increases in processing capabilities and memory capacity within super computers has resulted in vast improvements to the overall computational power of machines, making them capable of tasks far beyond the scope of a human brain.

It has been posited by other modern thinkers such as Kevin Kelly that there are multiple and different types of intelligence, and that the best kind may in fact be the combination of human intelligence with super computer brain power. Today’s AI excels at automating the duties of household appliances, suggesting solutions to scheduling conflicts among groups, and intelligently routing us around traffic accidents on our daily commute, but it doesn’t do well at nurturing children the way human parents can, or catalyzing creativity and innovation in students the way an engaging teacher can. When we combine these intelligences together, we see great advances in efficiency, safety, creativity, and happiness in the home and in schools.

The growing chasm of capability between machine and human intelligence suggests that the creation of new and uniquely significant human knowledge without the aid of AI has come increasingly close to its limit. This isn’t to say that we’re approaching a point of absolute omniscience in which we will know all there is to know. This is only to say that very soon, the primary task of the creative human mind will be to develop insight into that which is already known: to make meaning from knowledge already made by humans and information already indexed by machines, through the exploration and expression of human experience.

Qualia and Consciousness

Not only does computational processing differ from human intelligence in scope by virtue of its capacity for infinite expansion, but it differs in method as well. As Kurzweil states, “There is considerable plasticity in the brain, which enables us to learn. But there is far greater plasticity in a computer, which can completely restructure its methods by changing its software. Thus, in that respect, a computer will be able to emulate a brain, but the converse is not the case” (193). Personally, I would append but one word to this claim: yet.

The human brain has no formal or automatic method for weeding out inconsistencies in thought or contradictions of belief. This can result in a range of undesired phenomena, from irrational behavior to cognitive dissonance. Although humans are capable of what has been called “critical thinking,” Kurzweil cites this faculty only as a “weak mechanism,” and a skill “not practiced nearly as often as it should be.” For as he writes in Chapter 8 of How to Create a Mind, “In a software-based neocortex, we can build in a process that reveals inconsistencies for further review” (197). In other words, computer scientists can integrate superior methods of data processing and error-correction into the foundations of consciousness for artificially intelligent machines.

With the potential for superior error-correction built into AI, the question then arises whether or not an artificially intelligent machine can/will eventually replicate the workings of a biological human brain, and to what extent such a creation will resemble true human intelligence.

This is question can very likely can be answered via scientific inquiry: through experimentation and observation, along with proper interpretation and wise application of the results derived from said inquiry. This question asks us to shift from the brain as biological substance, to the mind and consciousness as Philosophical concepts.

Kurzweil continues, “Consciousness, and the closely related question of qualia are a fundamental, perhaps the ultimate, philosophical question” and “I maintain that these questions can never be fully resolved through science. In other words, there are no falsifiable experiments that we can contemplate that would resolve them, not without making philosophical assumptions” (205).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say on the topic of qualia:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.

Although there are a number of compelling theories that attempt to define the point at which a being is fully endowed with true consciousness, Kurzweil believes that in the end there is a fundamental need for a leap of faith on our part when assessing the (non)consciousness of machines. Whether or not they are in fact conscious, “machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia” (209). Kurzweil’s leap of faith is that once this convincing occurs, they [machines] “will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

I believe this leap of faith to be quite rational, as it follows from the claim that although not all beings with consciousness are capable of convincing others of their consciousness, that any being capable of convincing others of their conscious is, in fact, conscious.

The key to understanding the thought experiment of machine consciousness is to invest fully in the “convincing” itself. For if we are in fact convinced of a nonbiological, artificially intelligent being’s narrative of self-reflection and description of individual qualia, what difference does it make whether or not a true consciousness lies behind the eyes? Indeed, the bulk of this conclusion may translate to life in general: if you are fully convinced of anything yet act the opposite, where is your integrity? The feminist philosopher belle hooks once said in a lecture I attended that integrity is the congruence of that which we believe, think, and act.

The emergence, identification, and recognition of this consciousness will each undoubtedly stand as epochal moments in the history of what Kurzweil and others term the human-machine civilization. It may sound like the stuff of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Westworld’s Hosts to some, and they would be right to reflect upon the problem as such.

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The Modern Relevance of Yoga Anatomy

Yoga Anatomy Second Edition
Learn more with Yoga Anatomy, by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

It’s important to understand the metaphorical nature of the language used in yoga philosophy and anatomy. It can be easy to let concepts like chakras, prana, etc. obscure the greater truths that they’re used to illustrate, but remember that wisdom from a different time, language, and culture is still wisdom.

The purpose of yoga anatomy isn’t to articulate a 100% scientifically descriptive discourse by appropriating Indian mysticism. Rather, its purpose is to articulate a holistic perspective of the body/mind and its inner workings that can be understood from within the greater context of Yoga.

Acknowledging this distinction allows the truth of both science and yoga to do their jobs without one negating the validity of the other.

Just as understanding the Scientific workings of the body need not diminish one’s awe of Nature, the pre-modern imagery of the Yogic explanation need not be misinterpreted as supernatural justification for natural phenomena.

I’ve found that when it’s not immediately clear to me how a yogic explanation of the body can be scientifically translated, the answer is to practice more asana. Eventually, the truth becomes clear. Indeed, such clarity is part of the power of yoga asana.

For Reference